Excerpt from Blame It on Rio…
From Chapter Two
“So Air-Biscuit Jon’s last name is Esparza, huh?” Rio said.
Werewulf’s was starting to get busy, but he’d found Dave staking a claim on the big booth in the back of the restaurant. It was the only booth that seated four so comfortably that they could easily squeeze in six, provided everyone liked each other and had showered recently.
They were meeting Thomas King, his wife Tasha, and Mike Lee for burgers and beer, but Rio slipped into the bench across from Dave, because this conversation needed direct eye contact.
The younger SEAL squinted a bit, wary as he tried to figure out why Rio had brought up his lying, cheating ex, many long weeks after they’d last discussed him.
“Jon Esparza,” Dave confirmed. “Yeah…?”
“Is Luc still in London?” Rio asked.
Now Dave was perplexed at Rio’s rapid change of subject. “I haven’t heard from him in weeks.” He smiled wryly. “I was gonna ask you. He’s gone dark on social media, too.”
“Last I heard,” Rio said, “was right after he arrived, but he was extremely monosyllabic. My mom told me that Aunt Angela told her that the new job was running him hard.”
“Or he’s already seeing someone, and doesn’t want to rub my face in it,” Dave pointed out.
“Rumor I heard was that he’s still seeing you,” Rio said. “I thought maybe you changed your mind about the long-distance thing.”
“Okay,” Dave said slowly. “I don’t know how you heard that, because I have not told anyone except for… well, I, um, told an… old friend, yeah, that, um, Luc and I are kinda… still dating. In fact, I sent her a picture of us just a few days ago because… See, Jon finally checked himself into rehab and, um…” He stopped. Shook his head. “I mean, I say those words and I still can’t believe it, after all those damned interventions.” He shook his head again. Forced a smile. “Long story short, this… old friend reached out, said Jon wanted me to come to the friends-and-family day at Blue Mountain—that’s the facility he checked into—and I, well, I told her no. I made it seem like I was still seeing Luc, you know, that he was still in town, and that it was, um, kinda serious. She’s been pushing to get me to at least go and see Jon, plus there’s this wedding coming up that we’re all attending, and… well, to avoid that clusterfuck, I’ve kinda kept the I’m-seeing-Luc fabrication going.”
Rio nodded. Last winter, he’d played matchmaker and talked Dave into giving his favorite cousin a call. Luc had just moved to San Diego, so it seemed like a win/win, since Dave was just coming off of a particularly bad breakup with Jon. Esparza. The brother of Casey freaking Esparza.
Dave and Luc had gone out a few times, but then Luc got a job offer from a company based in London. The story Rio heard from both Dave and Luc was that neither wanted a long-distance relationship, so that had been that. They’d parted as friends.
“And when you show up at this wedding without Luc?” Rio asked.
Dave shrugged. “I figured I’d say he had a family emergency…?”
Rio nodded. “Your old friend Casey Esparza thinks that I’m Luc,” he told Dave.
“Oh, shit,” Dave said, wincing before his eyes widened. “Oh, shit. What did she do?”
“She accosted me in the parking lot at Ralph’s.” Accosted was pure hyperbole, and it was obvious from Dave’s expressive face that he knew it. Still… “I have no clue how she found me—or rather the me she thought was Luc. If she paid for a PI, she should ask for a refund. You know, on account of me not being Luc?”
Dave was shaking his head and sighing. “Rio, I’m so sorry. She’s always been… a bit of a champion for Jon. Well, no, that’s not quite true. She’s been a champion for Jon and me. She’s a hopeless romantic, and she loved the idea of childhood sweethearts lasting forever.”
“And when, exactly, were you going to tell me that you’re old friends with Casey freaking Esparza?”
Dave looked sheepish. “I dunno. You were so into her and Wild Sky and we were just starting to be friends—I mean, real friends. You’ve always been friendly—you and Thomas. And Mike, too, but… I think I wanted to be sure that you liked me for me, not because I could introduce you to Casey…?”
One of the reasons Rio liked Dave so damn much was because he said shit like that. He just spoke his truth and didn’t give a damn that he’d be revealing his innermost vulnerable feelings.
So Rio responded in kind. “Well, that’s fucking stupid, asshole. I don’t like you more because you know Casey freaking Esparza. How fucking shallow do you think I am?”
“Well, you’re a white, cis, straight man, so…” Dave shot back, and Rio had to laugh.
“So’d you lie to me about Luc, too?”
Dave was now intently focused on his mug of beer. “Lie about Luc how?”
Rio quickly did that math. “Are you’re telling me you’ve lied to me more than once about Luc…?”
Dave looked at him then, his eyes wide. “No! Well, you know, little, tiny lies of omission. Like everyone does. How are you? I’m fine. I just… I left out things I knew you didn’t want to hear.”
“Like… I don’t know. Like, I didn’t tell you that dating Luc didn’t make me stop missing Jon. Which… I’m pretty sure fucked things up with Luc, because he knew that. He could tell, and… We only went out twice, two nights in a row, and I would’ve gone for three—but then, London, and they needed him to get there right away, so that was it. Like, I think he thought it was just sex for me, but, man, I don’t know, I don’t think it was—”
Rio couldn’t stop himself from saying. “You slept with my cousin…?”
Dave laughed a little. “See, the omission of that info was apparently a good call.”
“Sorry, sorry, no,” Rio quickly backpedaled. “The emphasis came out wrong. I mean, I meant to say, of course you slept with… I know Luc pretty well, and… I should’ve figured that. It’s a good thing. I mean, Luc’s not Jon, and I’m really glad you didn’t slip and sleep with that motherfucker.”
“Yeah, well, I’m pretty sure Luc thinks it was all just some kind of rebound, that I was just using him for the sex.”
Rio winced. He knew—too well—what that felt like. And suddenly Luc’s seemingly out-of-the-blue move to London made a little more sense. “But… it wasn’t?”
“I honestly don’t know,” Dave admitted as Rio spotted Thomas and Tasha coming into the restaurant.
Thomas was hard to miss. Tall and Black with a cleanly shaved head, he looked like the naval officer that he was, even when he wasn’t in uniform. It was in his walk, his regal bearing. Apparently, he’d always been that way, even as a kid.
Rio half stood and waved until he caught the big man’s eye. And then, yeah, it was time to surrender this full bench to the lieutenant and his bride. So he switched over to Dave’s side of the booth.
“I mean, I still spend way too much time thinking about Jon,” Dave confessed, “but now Luc… Well, he’s on my mind. Way more than I’d expected him to be.”
Rio had to ask. “Are you secretly pining for him?”
“Secretly pining for who?” Tasha asked as her husband let her slide into the bench seat first. Her long, red hair was slightly damp around her face, as if she’d recently showered. Come to think of it, Thomas was looking pretty damn fresh, too. No wonder they were late. Showering always took longer when it wasn’t a solo operation. Lucky bastards.
Rio and Dave both elevated themselves a few inches, as if they were going to stand and salute. “Lieutenant.”
Thomas waved them off just as they knew he would. “Yeah, yeah, as you were, permission to whatever. I texted we were running late. Why didn’t you order the beer?”
“Didn’t want it to go flat, sir,” Dave said. Unlike Rio, he hadn’t gone through BUD/S with Thomas. He was younger than they were, and it was hard for him to let go of the sir-ing and the Lieutenant-ing, even off base and after hours.
“Is Mikey coming?” Rio asked. It had been a long time since their other BUD/S swim-buddy, Mike Lee, joined them at ’Wulf’s.
“He’s got family in town tonight,” Tasha delivered the disappointing news as Thomas tried to flag down a server.
But Dave stopped him. “No, sir, it’s on its way. Alaskan Amber on tap.”
As if by magic, the owner, Greykell, appeared with mugs of beer for all of them, including a second for Dave. She knew them well. “Is it cheeseburger night?” she asked.
“It is,” Thomas told her. “Thanks, Grey.”
“Coming right up,” she said with a smile. She knew the SEALs who came into her restaurant were often on a tight schedule—and usually starving.
Tasha, meanwhile had turned her focus back to Dave. Her blue eyes were narrowed. “Pining for who?” she persisted.
“My cousin Luc,” Rio told her. With whom Dave had had sex. Which really was okay with him. Two consenting adults having some happy-fun-sexy-time. Love is love is love, although maybe that should be sex is sex is sex, which was also true and absolutely, supremely cool. He just wished Dave and Luc were still having sex—that they’d connected in the long-term, far more permanent way that Rio had imagined when he’d first set them up.
But maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t too late for that.
“Whew.” Tasha flashed Rio a look of genuine relief. She apparently liked him much better now that she was married to one of his best friends, which was nice. There’d been quite a few years during which she hadn’t liked him very much, so it could’ve gone the other way and that would’ve sucked. “I was afraid we were back to pining for Jon.” She made a face.
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t call it pining for Luc,” Dave said. “Just wistfully wishing that… a lot of things were different.”
“Such as…?” Tasha prompted.
“That he was still living in San Diego and I really was still dating him.”
Tasha laughed. “And that’s not pining how…?”
Dave shook his head. “I don’t know. We didn’t go out long enough to know if it was real or… I mean, maybe it’s not so much about missing Luc as it is about missing being with someone. Anyone. As in anyone who’s not Jon. God help me.” He glanced at Rio before telling Tasha and Thomas, “He just got out of rehab.”
“Oh, no.” Tasha said. “I mean, yay, good for Jon, that’s hard to do, I hope it sticks, but nooo, no, no, no, that’s very un-good for you, because let me guess. He’s started calling you again.”
“He hasn’t,” Dave told them. “But Casey—his sister—has.”
“So Dave told Casey that he’s still seeing Luc,” Rio chimed in, since Dave was clearly going to tell them anyway. He was curious though if Dave was going to elucidate and tell them exactly who Jon’s famous sister was by adding an Esparza to that Casey. “To get her to back off.”
“Only she didn’t back off,” Dave said. “Instead, she paid Rio a little visit.”
“Yeah,” Rio told them. “That was weird and confusing because it wasn’t until she left that I realized she thought I was Luc.”
“What?” Tasha said, delighted with that twist.
“Cousins,” Thomas sang. “Identical cousins!”
“Yeah,” Rio had to admit. “You know, when we were younger, we didn’t really look that much alike. But this past year or so—ever since he stopped getting creative with his hair—it’s like I have a clone.”
“All right,” Tasha said. “That’s it. I need to see a picture of Luc right now. I thought you were kidding or exaggerating or—”
“Nope,” Dave said, getting out his phone. “They really do look alike. I mean, I can tell them apart easily, but… Ah, shit.” He glanced at Rio. “Casey texted me again. She says she’s sorry, and… she hopes I’ll still come to the wedding on Saturday and… Oh, no.”
“Don’t go, man,” Rio said.
“I have to,” Dave told him as he handed his phone to Tasha, showing her what looked—from Rio’s upside-down perspective—to be a selfie that Dave had taken with Luc, probably during one of their dates.
“No, you don’t,” Rio said. “If you’re giving Luc a fake family emergency, then you can make it terrible enough so that you need to be with him, to support him throughout it. See? Easy.”
Dave shook his head. “That’s… no. I’m not gonna…”
“Wow,” Tasha said.
Rio leaned closer to get a better look at the photo.
In it, Dave was smiling—he looked really happy. And Luc… looked like Luc, laughing his ass off at something as usual, except he was also looking directly at Dave with total, undeniable, unmistakable heart-eyes.
And with that, Rio no longer had any doubt about it. Luc had fallen in love at first sight with Dave, who was still not quite over his asshole of an ex. So Luc had run—far and fast. Damnit.
Tasha used her fingers to enlarge the photo. Her eyes widened as she looked from the picture to Rio and back. “I mean, I know this isn’t you. I see his pretty red shirt and I know that cannot be yourpretty red shirt because you have never, in your entire life, owned a pretty red shirt. I accept as a fact that this is your cousin Luc, but… are we absolutely sure it isn’t you?”
“Very,” Rio said.
“You look exactly like him. Except for the shirt.”
“Nah, he looks like me,” Rio informed her. “He’s a year younger.”
Tash handed Dave back his phone as she asked Rio, “So Jon’s sister came to see Luc, except it was really you?” She laughed again. “That’s… pretty crazy—for her to track Luc down like that—and it’s possibly a little dangerous. I mean, what exactly was she trying to do?”
“I don’t know,” Rio said. “She’s definitely not dangerous. Just rich and entitled.” He glanced at Dave, shooting him a look that clearly said You gonna, or am I?
Dave nodded as he sighed. “Jon’s sister is Casey Esparza.”
“Seriously?” Thomas started to laugh.
“Dave grew up across the street from her,” Rio told them.
Tasha was less impressed. “I’ve met her,” she said. “Ted was friends with Wild Sky’s… showrunner, I think it was.” When she said Ted, she meant Prince Tedric of Ustanzia. She was close friends with the royal dude. “We hung out on set a few years ago, you know, when they did the reunion movie. Casey seemed really nice. Grounded and down to earth.”
“She is,” Dave said. “She just really loves Jon. And me.”
“They were together for ten years,” Rio threw out.
“Seriously?” Now it was Tasha’s turn to be wowed. “So… maybe her overly-enthusiastic-bordering-on-stalker motivation was more of a Parent Trap thing.”
Dave laughed as he nodded. “Yeah, that’s definitely Casey’s vibe. Rated PG with zany hijinks and some slapstick comedy thrown in.”
Rio finished his beer. “Okay, help me out here. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen The Parent Trap,” he said. “I know it’s about twins separated at birth—which is bullshit, by the way, who does that to their kids? But okay, they randomly meet at some summer camp and decide to get their parents back together, and zany hijinks ensue…?” He shook his head. “I’m confused as to how that’s Casey’s vibe. And feel free to define vibe for me while you’re at it.”
“It’s the spirit of the film,” Tasha told him, “that Casey’s harnessing here. Her motivation comes from a pure, somewhat child-like place, you know—she’s trying to reconnect two people she thinks are soul-mates.”
“That makes Luc the mean lady who’s trying to get her hooks into the dad,” Dave told him. “Which… makes me the dad. Was it Brian Keith…?”
“I don’t remember the mean lady,” Rio said.
“Or Dennis Quaid in the remake,” Tasha told Dave, before turning back to Rio. “The twins are horrible to her, and she eventually leaves.”
“So… if Luc’s the mean lady, and Casey’s vibe is the whole pure-but-horrible twins thing, then she approached me—thinking I’m Luc—in the parking lot to… do what, exactly?”
“She was probably just checking you out,” Tasha said.
“Maybe,” Thomas theorized, “she wanted to see Luc up-close to make sure Dave wasn’t doing that, what do you call it, fake-boyfriend thing.”
“Fake boyfriend,” Rio said, laughing, because Luc absolutely was Dave’s fake boyfriend. Dude had managed to embroil them all into his rom-com movie of a life. “Except, whew, the layers get really deep here, guys—because… wait for it—I’m Dave’s fake Luc.” He turned to grin at Dave. “Which makes me your fake fake-boyfriend. That’s impressive, bro. I’m free on Saturday, by the way, if you want me to go to that wedding with you.”
And now both Tasha and Dave were looking at him with wide eyes, while Thomas just laughed and slowly shook his head. “Rio,” he said. “Now, I know you were kidding, but…”
“Nah, man,” Rio said. “I’m serious here. If Dave thinks he’s got to go to this thing—”
“I don’t just think it,” Dave said. “I really do have to.”
“Well, my first choice would be Dave doesn’t go and expose himself to Jon’s toxic bullshit,” Rio said. “But if he really thinks he has to, then my next choice is that Dave doesn’t go alone. And since his real fake-boyfriend’s in London…”
Dave laughed. “Rio, I appreciate it, I do, but I’m not gonna make you—”
“You’re not making me do anything,” Rio countered. “I hate Jon’s lying, cheating face. I’m more than happy to help keep you safe from him, plus I get to meet Casey Esparza for real, with hopefully fifty-percent less weirdness. Also? I’m still hoping you’ll eventually get your head out of your ass, and spend some quality time with Luc to see if it’s real. That’s not gonna happen if you hook up with Jon again and get trapped in his relentless drama. Again.”
From Blame It on Rio
Tall, Dark & Dangerous Navy SEAL Team Ten #14
© 2023 Suzanne Brockmann
Coming soon in ebook and print from Suzanne Brockmann Books